Gregg Olsen

"If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood"


Shared memories are like jagged puzzle pieces. Sometimes they don't exactly align with complete precision. I've done my best to put all of the pieces of this complex story in the most accurate sequence as possible. In instances where the narrative includes dialogue, I used investigative documents and recollections from interviews conducted over a two-year period. Finally, for reasons related to privacy, I elected to use a pseudonym for Lara Watson's first name.

PROLOGUE

Three sisters.

Now grown women.

All live in the Pacific Northwest.

The eldest, Nikki, lives in the moneyed suburbs of Seattle, in a million-dollar home of gleaming wood and high-end furnishings. She's in her early forties, married, with a houseful of beautiful children. A quick tour through a gallery of family photos in the living room touches on the good life she and her husband have made for themselves, with a successful business and a moral compass that has always kept them pointed in the right direction.

It takes only the mention of a single word to take her back to the unthinkable.

"Mom."

Every now and then, she literally shudders when she hears it, a visceral reaction to a word that scrapes at her like the talons of an eagle,

cutting and slicing her skin until blood runs out.

To look at her, no one would know what she's lived through and survived. And outside her immediate family, no one really does. It isn't a mask that she wears to cover the past but an invisible badge of courage. What happened to Nikki made her stronger. It made her the incredible woman that she is today.

The middle daughter, Sami, eventually returned to live in her hometown, the same small coastal Washington town where everything happened. She's just turned forty and teaches at a local elementary school. She has corkscrew hair and an infectious sense of humor. Humor is her armor. It always has been. Like her older sister, Sami's own children are what any mother dreams for their little ones. Smart. Adventurous. Loved.

When Sami runs the shower in the morning before getting the kids ready for school and heading off to the classroom, she doesn't pause a single beat for the water to warm. She jumps right in, letting the icy water stab at her body. Like Nikki, Sami is tied to things in the past. Things she can't shake.

Things she can't forget.

The youngest, like her older sisters, is a beauty. Tori is barely in her thirties: blonde, irreverent, and brilliant. Her home is farther away, in Central Oregon, but she's very connected to her sisters. Adversity and courage have forged a strong, impenetrable bond between them. This young woman has made an amazing life for herself developing social media for a major player in the hospitality industry. Her posts for work and for her personal life never fail to bring a smile or even a laugh out loud.

She did it on her own, of course, but says she couldn't have managed it without her sisters.

Whenever she's in the cleaning supply aisle of the local grocery store and her eyes land on the row of bleach, she turns away. Nearly a wince. She can't look at it. She certainly can't smell it. Like her sisters, it's the little things - duct tape, pain relievers, the sound of a weed eater - that propel her back to a time and place where their mother did things they swore they'd hold secret forever.

Enduring their mother was what bound them together. And while they might have had three different dads, they were always 100 percent sisters. Never half sisters. Their sisterhood was the one thing the Knotek girls could depend upon, and really, the only thing their mother couldn't

take away.

It was what propelled them to survive.

PART ONE

MOTHER

SHELLY

CHAPTER ONE

Some small towns are built on bloody earth and betrayal. Battle Ground, Washington, twelve miles northeast of Vancouver, near the Oregon state line, is one such place. The town is named for an incident involving a standoff between the Klickitat nation and the US Army. The native people freed themselves from imprisonment in the barracks, but while a surrender was being negotiated, a single shot rang out, killing the Klickitat's Chief Umtuch.

It's fitting for Michelle "Shelly" Lynn Watson Rivardo Long Knotek's hometown to be known for a major conflict and a false promise.

As it turned out, it was pretty much the way Shelly lived her life.

For those who lived there in the 1950s, Battle Ground was quintessential small-town America with good schools, neighbors who looked out for each other, and a bowling league that kept the pins falling every Friday and Saturday night. Dads worked hard to afford the new car and nice house. Most moms stayed home taking care of the children, maybe later returning to the workforce or taking classes at Clark College to continue dreams thwarted by conventions of the day and marriage.

If Battle Ground had a Mr. Big Shot of sorts, it was Shelly's father.

At six feet, two inches tall, with broad shoulders, Les Watson, former Battle Ground High School track and football star, was a big deal around town. Everyone knew him. He was quick-witted and could pour on the charm, a smooth talker and a master of BS. Handsome too. All the girls in town thought he was a catch. Not only did he and his mother own and operate a pair of nursing homes, Les also owned the Tiger Bowl, a ten-lane bowling alley complete with a twelve-seat snack counter.

That was where Lara Stallings worked in 1958. She'd just graduated from Fort Vancouver High School and was selling hamburgers to save money for college. Lara's curly hair was blonde, with a ponytail that

swung back and forth as she took orders. With sparkling blue eyes, she was undeniably beautiful. She was also smart. Later, she'd lament that her brain wasn't in full gear when she agreed to date, and then eventually marry, Les Watson.

Les was also ten years older, though he'd lied and told his teenage bride that he was only four years her senior.

"I got caught up in all he had going for him," Lara said years later, bemoaning the choice she made. "I fell hook, line, and sinker. He just wasn't a great guy."

Lara's jolt into reality came the day after she put her hair up in a French twist - like Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock classic, The Birds - and married Les in a civil ceremony in 1960 in Vancouver, her hometown. Only Lara's family was present, though her parents had been against the marriage. Les had had good reason not to invite his.

They knew what was coming.

When the phone rang early the next morning, Lara answered. It was Les's first wife on the line, calling from California.

"When are you coming to get these damn kids?" Sharon Todd Watson spat into the phone.

Lara didn't know what she was talking about. "What?"

Les had never mentioned to Lara that he'd promised to raise his children by Sharon: Shelly, Chuck, and Paul Watson. The omission of that little detail was typical of Les, though Lara knew that she'd never be able to fix that - and that her parents' concerns had been justified.

After the early-morning call, Les told Lara that his ex-wife, Sharon, couldn't raise the kids; she was a depressive and an alcoholic. Lara took a deep breath and agreed. And really, what could she do about it anyway? They were her husband's children, and she knew she would need to buck up.

It turned out to be a very big request. Shelly was six and Chuck was just three when they moved in. Lara took on the role of stepmother - Sharon had kept the youngest son, Paul, still then an infant, with her. Shelly was a beautiful little girl, with wide eyes and thick, curly auburn hair. Lara noticed a strange dynamic, however, between Shelly and her brother. Chuck didn't speak a word. It was Shelly who did all the talking. She seemed to control the boy.

And as Shelly grew more comfortable with her new environment, she often voiced complaints or unkind words.

"She told me every single day that she hated me," Lara recalled. "I'm

not joking. It was honestly every day."

Sharon Watson returned home to Alameda, California, after dropping off her two oldest children with Lara and Les in the fall of 1960. Once Sharon was gone, it was like she'd never existed. She never called or sent birthday cards to either Shelly or Chuck. No Christmas wishes either. There were few excuses for this "out of sight, out of mind" approach to child-rearing, though Lara later wondered if the course had been set long before Shelly's mother had married and divorced Les Watson.

"Sharon came from a very dysfunctional family," Lara recounted, having heard about Les's first wife. "Her mother was married five, six, seven times and she was an only child. I understood she had a twin that died at birth. I don't know if that's really true or not, but that's one of the stories I'd been told."

Regardless of what had led her to that point, it was understood that while Sharon had serious problems with alcohol, there was more pulling her down. She'd gotten caught up in a dangerous lifestyle. Family members speculated she might even be a prostitute.

Finally, in the spring of 1967, a call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department came to the Watsons' home in Battle Ground. A homicide detective said that Sharon had been murdered in a seedy motel room and the coroner needed someone to identify her body - and to pick up her little boy, Paul.

Les didn't want to go get his son, whom he knew had exhibited myriad behavioral problems, but Lara insisted. It was the right thing to do. Reluctantly, they made the trip to California to get him and to identify Sharon's body.

Les reported to Lara what he'd learned from the police and the coroner.

"She was living with a Native American, but they were homeless," he told her. "Drunks. Living on Skid Row. She was beaten to death."

Later, when Sharon's cremains were sent to Washington, her mother refused to take them. Nor did anyone hold a memorial service for her. It was tragic but it fit her story. In images culled from a tattered old family album, there are only a handful of pictures of Sharon, almost never with a smile. Her perpetual despondency preserved forever in black and white.

When Shelly was told what had happened to her mother, the thirteen-year-old didn't seem the least bit interested. She barely reacted. Lara

thought it was strange. It was as if there had been no true connection between Shelly and Sharon.

"She never once asked about her mother," Lara recalled.

CHAPTER TWO

The newest member of the Watson family brought a host of problems to Battle Ground. Paul possessed zero impulse control and positively no social skills. He didn't even know how to sit at the table at dinnertime. His first or second day in the house, Lara caught the boy on the kitchen countertop stomping around looking for food, opening cupboards and tossing out whatever didn't meet with his approval.

"Paul was wild," she acknowledged. "He was like an animal. He even carried a switchblade. Really. Not kidding. He did."

Lara did what she could, but she knew almost right away that she was in way over her head. Les was busy with his businesses, and Lara didn't fault him too much for not having much time for his children, but she was doing all she could as a stepmother to three handfuls - willful Shelly, wild Paul, and silent Chuck. Chuck, who still didn't speak unless Shelly put words in his mouth, was a loner. People who knew their birth mother suspected that his difficulties might have come from some kind of child abuse, though in the 1960s little of that was actually put into words.

"A neighbor told me one time that they'd seen Chuck in his room with the window open and he was just standing there crying," Lara said. "It was something that he did all the time."

As difficult as Paul and Chuck could be, the child who created the most difficulty for Lara was Shelly.

The Watsons put extra emphasis on getting the most out of their family time on the weekends, shutting out all other distractions and focusing on the kids, which by now also included a daughter and a son Lara and Les had had together. They made regular trips to the Oregon or Washington coasts for boating in the summer months, and in the winter, they skied the slopes of Mount Hood. It would have been a fine and happy life, if not for Shelly.

She pitched fits, started fights, and would flat out refuse to go. If something wasn't Shelly's idea, it was a nonstarter. Whenever she didn't get her way, Shelly was crafty enough to find a suitable solution. Usually it involved a lie. Her excuses were vague and often ridiculous. She didn't like doing her homework, for example. So she'd complain that her

youngest siblings had destroyed all of her hard work. When that ruse didn't work anymore, she'd simply refuse to go to school.

"I'd try to find ways to make [things] easier for her in the morning," Lara recalled. "I would set her clothes out at night, so she wouldn't have to worry at the last minute to decide. I would set cereal and fruit out on the dining table - all ready to go. Anything to make the mornings go a little more smoothly. But that didn't matter. Shelly didn't want to do what she didn't want to do."

Each morning, a sullen and frequently angry Shelly would head off to school and the morning battle would be over.

At least that's what Lara believed at the time.

"I got a phone call one time from the Standard Oil service station down the street from the school. They said, 'This is the craziest thing! We've been seeing this little girl come in and going in [to] use the bathroom, and she brings in a sack of clothes [and then] she goes out,' and they say, 'She's got a pile of clothes here. But she leaves with another set of clothes, jeans.'"

Lara got in her car and drove to the Standard station. She was astounded by what she found.

Shelly had indeed left behind a stash of clothes. "Probably had four or five dresses and skirts of hers squirreled away there. Beautiful brand-new things that Shelly didn't want to wear to school."

The impasse on clothing was only a fraction of the discord between Shelly and Lara, though Lara kept trying to find a way to get her stepdaughter on the right path. When Shelly was a little older, Lara took her to dance lessons, but half the time the girl refused to go inside the studio. She'd skip the recitals too.

"Everything was a big drama with her. Every little thing. Shelly always looked distraught and upset, whatever we did, wherever we went. No matter what it was. Even doing something nice for her like getting her a gift brought anger. 'What are you being mad about?' I'd ask. No answer, but I knew from the way she acted that nothing was good enough. Nothing whatsoever. Nothing satisfied her."

In time, Shelly's behavior began to change from being merely disruptive and ungrateful to dark and vengeful. She especially resented her siblings. Every bit of attention to another person meant a deficit in what she felt was owed to her. Whenever the deficit wasn't paid, Shelly sought revenge. Her tactics were brutal and, frequently, sadistic. There would be lies about family members, stolen money, and even suspicion

of arson in the Watson house.

Years later, Lara took a deep breath, recalling, "She used to chop up bits of glass and put them in the bottom of [the kids'] boots and shoes," she said. "What kind of person does something like that?"

Lara didn't have to look far for an example.

Grandma Anna, Shelly's paternal grandmother, was just that kind of person too.

CHAPTER THREE

For Lara, seeing her mother-in-law, Anna Watson, meant a tightening of the muscles along her spine, hoping that Les's mother wouldn't cast her sharklike eyes in her direction. If Anna passed by, it brought Lara a shudder of relief. Only then could Lara take a breath. A very deep one. At least that's how Shelly's stepmother felt whenever she faced the singular terror that was Anna Watson.

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, and transplanted to Clark County when she was a teen, Shelly Watson's paternal grandmother was tall and large, with muscled, shot-put shoulders and the sinewy trace of tendons that ran from her neck into the collar of her plain blue blouse. Anna tipped the scales at more than 250 pounds, and her left foot dragged when she walked, emitting a scraping noise that let people know when she was coming or going. Like her physical size, Anna's self-certainty was formidable. She was absolutely right about everything, so much so that no one ever dared challenge her. Not Les, and certainly not his young wife, Lara. Anna ran one of the Watsons' nursing homes, and there was no mistaking that everything had to be done her way. "Iron fisted" often came to the lips of those recalling Anna Watson's style.

Anna's husband, George Watson, was the opposite of his wife. He was kind. Sweet. Endearing, even. He was smaller than Anna, standing four inches shorter, and did whatever his wife told him to do. For more than twenty years, Lara recalled, George slept in a small eight-by-eight-foot shed just outside the back door to the kitchen. He never slept in the house, because Anna insisted he stay in the shed.

Not long before Les and Lara married, two women from Western State Hospital, near Tacoma, came to work for Anna at one of the nursing homes the family owned in Battle Ground. While their names were Mary and Pearlie, Lara only ever heard Anna refer to them as her "retards." She lorded over them as a cruel queen might order around less-favored house servants. There was no task too low for the women to attend to in

a nursing facility where there were more than enough such tasks.

From Lara's perspective, the women were nearly slaves to Anna. At home, Anna made them clean her house, do the dishes, wash the floors. She'd order them to stop whatever task they were engaged in to wash her feet, do her hair. If the women moved too slowly, Anna would punch them, kick them, or pull their hair.

One time when Lara went over to Anna's to pick up Shelly, she noticed that Mary was upset about something. Pearlie's hair was wet and wrapped in a towel. Lara asked Mary what was wrong, and she confided that Anna had stormed out of the house with Shelly. She had been so angry about something that she had held Pearlie's head in the toilet bowl and repeatedly flushed.

Lara was stunned. She'd never heard of such a thing.

"Why would she do something like that?" she asked Mary.

"She does it all the time when she gets mad," she said.

"They were always afraid of Anna," Lara said later.

Everyone was.

Everyone, it seemed, but little Shelly.

Lara started working in the nursing home office shortly after Les's children came to live in Battle Ground. She had wanted to go to college, but those plans had been waylaid by instant motherhood. Since Shelly's school was next to the nursing home, Shelly would often go to Grandma Anna's after school instead of taking the bus home. Lara would call to see if she was there, and Anna would seethe that her granddaughter was being neglected and needed to stay with her to have a "proper" meal or be bathed correctly.

"You don't need to wash her hair, Anna."

"You don't do it right. It's filthy."

Anna knew what was best for Shelly.

Indeed, she knew what was best for everyone.

Lara held her tongue, a practice she'd come to master over time.

Another time, Lara came to pick Shelly up and found her beautiful red hair all cut off. Grandma Anna stood next to her granddaughter with a pair of scissors and a mean smile.

Lara was shocked. "What happened?"

Grandma Anna snapped at her. "You can't keep her hair brushed properly, so I cut it!"